Mark L. Gardner states in the first chapter of TO HELL ON A FAST HORSE that the New Mexico landscape contains many ghosts of its not-so-distant past. He contends that the people he researched in his story did not deserve their fate, especially Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. In a harsh time and land, it was more about survival than right versus wrong. The story opens the day after Christmas in 1880, when a rail-thin young man sits in a wagon as prisoner, guarded by lawman Pat Garrett, who escorts the Kid for transfer to the State Capitol.
William Bonney, known by this time as Billy the Kid, arrives by train to spend his remaining days in the Santa Fe, New Mexico jail. He has been sentenced to hang for his crimes of murder, cattle rustling and miscellaneous outlawry, but he holds a reputation as an escape artist. While Billy remains incarcerated, he courts numerous visitors and even writes letters to then-Governor Wallace to plea for his pardon or his sentence to be commuted.
Succeeding chapters deal with Garrett’s arrival in New Mexico, the various jobs he took on to make a living, and his ambitions to better his station in life. Eventually, he becomes a man hunter and lawman. He has been a buffalo hunter, cowboy, farmer, café owner and beef processor, and even raised hogs. On the other hand, William Antrim Bonney moves with his mother from Indiana to Wichita, Kansas, and witnesses the panorama of the westward American movement. His mother and her husband relocate the family to Denver, a possible climate change for her deteriorating health from tuberculosis. They soon move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the seduction of mineral discoveries is a draw. When his mother dies, his stepfather farms her two boys out much of the time. Kid Antrim, as he is now known, rapidly becomes a nuisance in the community, learning the dubious craft of stealing cavalry horses from the local garrison. He is short-tempered, rushes to fight, and soon winds up accused of murdering Windy Cahill in a saloon fight.
Teaming up with Jesse Evans, one of New Mexico’s most hated desperados, Antrim now calls himself Wm. H. Bonney, a reference to his mother’s former lover and possibly his own real father. Billy probably hones his skills as a sharpshooter in his days with the Evans “boys.” Evans and three of his boys have been captured and jailed in Lincoln County. He and 20 horsemen ride into town and head for the jail where they hold the jailer at gunpoint. Billy is later detained in the same dank place for stealing two horses from English rancher John Henry Tunstall. The Kid turns evidence against his former gang and secures a job with Tunstall, who is murdered in a bizarre raid by a sheriff’s posse. Billy guarantees revenge. Now, as a member of the Regulators, he ambushes Sheriff Wm. Brady in Lincoln and shoots him dead. The New Mexico Territory cannot allow such a heinous deed to go unpunished. Thus, Billy the Kid’s fate is sealed. Garrett’s quest now is to corral the Kid and bring him to justice, and his entire career will be remembered for the act that climaxes that journey.
TO HELL ON A FAST HORSE is the nonfiction documentation of Billy the Kid’s eventual death, laced with researched stories of his glorified life on the fast track. But the majority of the book deals with Pat Garrett --- his history, life as a heralded lawman, and later ventures into near oblivion. More than 200 pages tell the stories of both men, written as history with little dialogue. The remaining 75 pages or so are dedicated to the research Gardner painstakingly worked with to document his story. Each chapter is carefully attributed to written accounts in newspaper stories or in details by earlier western historians. Gardner credits numerous archives for his research and acknowledges such in detail. Western history buffs, in particular, will find this book entertaining and factual.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on April 28, 2011